The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Friday that it will propose a new wolf-hunting season for as early as this fall.
Management of the population is expected to fall back into state hands after the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes region is officially removed from federal endangered species protection later this month. That follows a long legal battle between federal officials and animal advocacy groups over whether the population has recovered enough.
DNR officials say because Minnesota's population of about 3,000 wolves is stable, it is seeking authority from the Legislature to create a new wolf-hunting license that would be available through a lottery system. The hunting season would include trapping and would likely take place between late November and early January, said Dan Stark, the department's large carnivore specialist.
The department has not yet set the number of licenses it will issue, a target harvest rate or bag limit. The first hunting season will be conservative to allow researchers to start collecting data on how successful hunters are and how the wolf population responds, officials said.
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Stark said the population needs to stay above 1,600 to remain sustainable. But he said success rates among wolf hunters in other states have been very low.
"It's kind of an opportunistic thing," he said. "Trappers targeting wolves are probably going to be more effective."
It will be the third time the federal government removes Great Lakes region wolves from the Endangered Species Act. On two previous occasions, in 2008 and 2009, federal officials returned the wolf to endangered species protection following legal action by some animal advocacy and conservation groups.
The Humane Society of the United States, which was among the groups that previously challenged decisions to remove the wolf from protection, has not yet decided whether to mount a new lawsuit, said Howard Goldman, the Humane Society's Minnesota state director.
"In our judgment, the wolves have not recovered. Presently the wolves only occupy about 5 percent of their historic range [nationwide]," Goldman said. "Hunting of wolves for sport or trophy or fun we think will threaten the survival of wolves in the state."
Goldman said he's encouraged to see the DNR proceeding with caution, but he said his group and its 170,000 members and supporters throughout the state will work to oppose legislation making a wolf hunt possible.
Some advocates are particularly concerned about the possibility of trapping, which they say can injure wolves as well as animals not targeted for the traps.
"It's cruel and dangerous," said Monica Engebretson, senior program associate at Born Free USA, a California-based group involved in past efforts to keep the wolf on the endangered list.
Engebretson said trophy hunting is not something the public looks kindly upon, and she hopes Minnesotans who oppose wolf hunting will get involved as the DNR works out its proposal with the Legislature.
"There's no need for a hunting season," she said.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr acknowledged that hunting wolves will be a sensitive issue.
"The wolf is really an iconic species in Minnesota," he said. "We need to proceed with care."
Landwehr said the state has a history of managing game species responsibly.
"We take this conditional opportunity seriously, and we're going to demonstrate that we can do it right," he said.
Ed Boggess, director of the DNR Fish and Wildlife Division, said many of the specifics of the proposed hunt still have to be worked out. He expects that will happen during the upcoming legislative session.
Boggess said DNR officials will propose starting with a small number of licenses to be cautious.
"We don't want to do anything that would get the wolf put back on the list," he said.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, oversees DNR matters at the Legislature and said he supports a wolf-hunting season. Ingebrigtsen said he wants to see the department's specific proposal but will do what he can to expedite legislation to allow the hunt.